Peter Bingle: A reflection on politics and public affairs

Written by Peter Bingle on 21 September 2016 in Opinion

I chose public affairs over being a politician. Did I make the right decision?

For the last thirty years I have been at the forefront of what is called the public affairs industry. I have run some of the most successful and famous campaigns and advised many of the most successful and powerful companies in the UK.

I have witnessed first hand how government really works. I have been both a participant in and an observer of the reality of the British political system for longer than I care to remember. I have had more influence than most MPs without the inconvenience of constituents' letters or weekly surgeries. And yet until my dying day part of me will always regret that I didn't stand for parliament and I didn't have the opportunity to be a Member of Parliament.

If you don't love politics you can't be an effective public affairs consultant. After all these years I still get a thrill walking through Westminster Hall, turning left and then passing those amazing marble statues of great men as you approach and then reach Central Lobby. There is nothing more exhilarating.

There was a time in the 1980s when I could have stood for parliament. I was a young and radical Thatcherite. What could go wrong? At the age of of twenty-six I was on course to change the world. Yet amazingly I realised that my experience of the real world was at best tenuous. I simply wasn't ready to stand for parliament. With hindsight I know I made the right decision.

In the intervening years I have for the most part come to terms with the fact that apart from eight years as a Wandsworth councillor my decision to choose financial gain rather than public service was the right one. And then something amazing happens which makes me reflective and self-doubting. Did I make the right decision?

In terms of family and personal gain I have no doubt that I made the right decision. I have enjoyed all the benefits of the political life with none of the downside. Yet something inside will always regard my life as unfulfilled because of my decision to walk away from the challenges of the Body Politic. Thankfully these moments of self doubt soon pass. I made the right decision.

Politics is more than a job. On the plus side you have the opportunity to play a role (no matter how insignificant) in changing the world. The downside is that most politicians are blessed with complete anonymity and a total failure to change anything. And yet...

We are all haunted by what might have been. To misquote WS Gilbert, as we approach the autumn of our lives we look back and reflect on what might have been achieved if things had turned out differently.

Nowadays I am too often struck by the lack of connectivity between the public affairs world and the Body Politic. With a few notable exemptions I never see public affairs consultants or their in-house colleagues at the Palace of Westminster. How can they possibly give good strategic advice? They can't...

Politics is addictive. There is no other way of describing what is so special about being a politician.  Former MPs who lost their seats more than twenty years ago can still be seen loitering around Central Lobby and then drinking in The Pugin Room. They are the living ghouls who haunt the Palace of Westminster. Somebody needs to exorcise them.

Modern politics is defined by being undefinable. The inmates are running the asylum. Everything that was certain is no longer so. Yet the attraction to be part of this madness is stronger than ever. I have thankfully learned to resist the madness.

My opportunity to be player in either the House of Commons or the House of Peers ended many years ago. Yet my affection and admiration for both is undiminished. I admire and respect a process which delivers the best democratic system in the civilised world.

My point is actually very simple. To be a great public affairs adviser you need to be somebody who wanted to be or could have been a real mover or shaker in the politic process. Otherwise why should anybody listen to let alone take your advice?


About the author

Peter Bingle is managing director of Terrapin Communications and former chair of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs.

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